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Several years ago, Connie Hartman was in a meeting when she had an interesting idea. What if two groups with different strengths and similar challenges could help each other while engaging socially? Hartman, an assistive technology specialist for the Medina County Board of Developmental Disabilities, then established Tech Connect, a program that brings together senior citizens and people with developmental disabilities to exchange social and technological skills.
Tech Connect is one of many educational programs throughout Ohio meant to break down barriers to technology and positively impact lives. According to Hartman, education and training are critical access points to digital participation and closing the digital divide.
“You could hand somebody the coolest piece of something, and if they don’t have practice and they don’t have ways that it’s useful to them, it’s a piece of junk,” said Hartman. “It will not work. And for people with intellectual disabilities, it requires a lot of practice. It may be months until they really can do lots of different things that make life easier.”
Tech Connect meets twice monthly, and it’s been successful in Medina County. People with disabilities practice communicating with technology like iPads in a social environment, and because the program focuses on conversation and collaboration, the incorporation of technology feels more natural. Other resources for information and education exist online, such as The Arc’s Tech Toolbox and the Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) My Technology Handbook.
Across the state of Ohio, there are also lending libraries available for those with disabilities. These libraries have different types of assistive and off-the-shelf technologies, typically available for checkout periods of 30 days. These programs are often free, and allow people to try out new types of technology and start learning how to use them on their own time, before they purchase a device.
On the West Campus of The Ohio State University, Bill Darling runs Assistive Technology of Ohio (AT Ohio), which includes a demonstration space and statewide lending library. AT Ohio is the state’s designated Tech Act program, and it serves Ohioans with any type of disability.
“One of our programs that we have is a computer refurbishing program that is set up so that people with disabilities can get a computer,” said Darling. “We have this because people with disabilities are the least likely to own a computer and know how to use it, and we think it’s so incredibly important that they be part of that world, that they be on the internet and be a part of social media. In the world of computers maybe more than any other area of life, you don’t know what you don’t know—until you get on there and start messing around and learning things yourself. It opens up a whole new world for them.”
Sometimes, people with developmental disabilities aren’t aware that technology exists that could be useful to them. When they find a device, they also have to learn how to use it. Educational programs that teach technology are one way to make sure people with developmental disabilities aren’t left behind due to the fast pace of technological development.
“The training aspect of accessing technology is difficult because when you’re given a piece of technology, you need training to learn how to use it,” said Robert Shuemak, an advocacy support advisor for the Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services. Robert also served as a member of the Technology First Council. “It’s easy to get the initial training, but then six months later there are things that have changed. Just think about your use with a cellphone and how often they turn over. You know, it’s a new iPhone out every year. So, you’re always upgrading with non-traditional technology and traditional technology. Things are always changing.”
In addition, findings from a Request for Information (RFI) by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) about Ohio’s digital infrastructure states that companies who have done work to expand broad access in other states have experienced issues with “digital literacy.” Specifically, AT&T emphasized the issue of “If you build it, will [emphasis added] they come” with broadband in rural areas. One solution AT&T suggests is “developing a digital literacy program that would educate rural communities about the services being provided to increase adoption rates.” InnovateOhio, in a press release from the Governor’s Office, will work with ODOT and other partner agencies to develop the statewide broadband strategy with a particular focus on addressing the challenges identified in the report, including digital literacy.
The Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council, through its Public Awareness grantee, began writing “The State of Tech” series in mid-2019. As each part of the series was released, each part had to be updated due to the continual progress and positive changes that continue to happen with technology and its use by people with developmental disabilities. The information provided in this series is up-to-date as of October 2019.
People with developmental disabilities, families, advocates, and professionals are encouraged to express their support to government agencies, organizations and advocacy groups to help continue the momentum to increase the use of technology by people with disabilities so they can lead more independent and self-determined lives.
The articles in this series were written by Clay Voytek of O'Neill Communications. O'Neill Communications is Ohio DD Council's Public Awareness grantee. The articles in this series were funded by the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council under the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act.
"The State of Tech: Teaching Tech" is the fourth in a four-part series that aims to educate and inform people about the impact of technology advances and the digital divide for Ohioans with developmental disabilities. This article was published in October 2019.
Clay Voytek of O'Neill Communications wrote the articles for this series. O'Neill Communications is the Ohio DD Council's Public Awareness grantee. The articles in this series were funded by the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council under the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act.
For more information about the series, including links to all articles, go to The State of Tech.